Photo by Marcy Stamper Attendees at the zoning hearing held up red and green cards — distributed by those who want the county to continue to treat marijuana like any other crop — to signal their support or opposition as speakers addressed the county planning commission.

Photo by Marcy Stamper
Attendees at the zoning hearing held up red and green cards — distributed by those who want the county to continue to treat marijuana like any other crop — to signal their support or opposition as speakers addressed the county planning commission.

Some complain about odors and eyesores

By Marcy Stamper

The vast majority of the literally overflow crowd that showed up for a planning commission hearing this week came to talk about the impacts of proposed zoning changes on the county’s budding marijuana industry and economy.

An estimated 350 people descended on the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan on Monday (March 28).

If the new regulations are adopted as proposed, marijuana would no longer be treated like any other crop but would require a special permit that could put conditions on where and how it’s grown. The permits would also give the public a chance to weigh in.

Only a handful of speakers wanted to talk about the more-traditional land-use topics addressed in the 154-page zone code, such as lot size and whether there are adequate resources to support growth in the county. Marijuana is covered in just a few lines in the zoning draft.

People in the marijuana industry and others who have benefited from the infusion of cash were apparently spurred to speak out after the Okanogan County commissioners placed a moratorium on new marijuana operations three weeks ago. The commissioners enacted the six-month pause to have time to consider the proposed zoning changes.

Interest in the topic was so high that the chair of the planning commission initially said they would have to reschedule Monday’s hearing in a larger facility. The hearing was able to proceed after 100 people voluntarily left or waited outside for their chance to speak.

Pros and cons

Many speakers suggested marijuana is providing long-needed economic salvation for a county that has lost many jobs over the years. “I like jobs — it would sure be nice to have some,” said one. “There’s finally a crop I can make money on,” said another.

Some said marijuana farms had boosted revenue for farm equipment, irrigation systems and fence-building. Others said they had benefited from the ripple effect in hardware stores and coffee shops.

Some speakers — about one-third — did not applaud the new industry. They said the proliferation of farms had destroyed rural neighborhoods with their 24-hour lighting, unsightly infrastructure and traffic.

Several said the county needs better controls to prevent children from being exposed to marijuana. Some said enforcement agents can’t keep up with the number of businesses they monitor.

Two residents of Benson Creek, where five pot farms operate on a single acre, said the traffic, lights and smell are intolerable. “We need some zoning or regulations so these facilities can’t just move in and take over people’s neighborhoods,” said one.

Okanogan County has the second-highest number of growers and processors in the state, in part because of its welcoming attitude. “This is a friendly outdoor climate, with abundant sunshine. It’s also a friendly regulatory environment,” said one speaker.

“I came to this community because it had open arms,” said a grower near Tonasket who said he had invested $300,000. “There may be some bad apples — let’s clean them up,” he said.

Okanogan County has a right-to-farm ordinance, which advises residents that they may be exposed to agricultural activities and odors. Several speakers said regulating marijuana because of odors would set the county on a slippery slope, ensnaring ranches or farms that use fertilizer. More than one warned that the county could face lawsuits if it tried to restrict pot farms.

The hearing even drew out-of-county lobbyists for the state’s marijuana industry. “The economic impacts are immense. Don’t cause harm to the whole industry to solve a few problems,” said one.

Some said they had been opposed to legalizing marijuana but now see the economic benefits. “There’s a lot of land here — we’re the largest county in this state and we do need the income,” said one.

Other concerns

A few speakers — all from the Methow Valley — said that if the proposal to expand ways for people to rent their homes to tourists is adopted, it would eliminate the already scarce supply of affordable housing and have an unfavorable effect on neighborhoods and the lodging industry.

A Twisp-area resident who spoke on behalf of the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council said the group is concerned the code would allow more growth than the county’s water supply can support, particularly because it doesn’t take into account vacation homes. The code also doesn’t adequately plan for wildfire, he said.

The 30-day comment period on the environmental review of the code ends April 4, but people can comment on the code itself until the county commissioners review it, which is expected in May.

The draft zoning code is on the Planning Department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning under “Draft Zoning Code document 10/16/2015.” For more information, call Planning Director Perry Huston at (509) 422-7218.

The planning commission has scheduled another hearing for public input on the zone code on Monday (April 11) at 6 p.m. at the AgriPlex annex in Okanogan.